Josh Lambert (contributor): Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow has done just fine for itself, thank you: Since it was published in July, it has made several bestseller lists, the film rights sold at auction for $2 million, and over the next year it’ll appear in about 20 languages. Plus The Atlantic just picked it as one of its top 10 “most thought-provoking books” of the year.
It took me a while to give the book a chance: Though it’s a novel about video game developers and I’m more or less addicted to video games, I usually steer clear of books that are this popular. (I’m an English professor, and I like to think my tastes are a little more refined.) Now that I’ve read it, I can say I wasn’t entirely wrong—Zevin’s book isn’t exactly avant garde—but it is a very solid, admirable work of fiction, worthy of your attention for half a dozen different reasons.
Not least of these, and almost unremarked upon in most of the reviews I’ve read, is that the novel tells the story of US video games over the past three decades or so as the story of two Jewish kids and their friendship. In other words (and I can’t believe I’m the first to be making this comparison), this novel couldn’t more obviously be The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for video games. Its protagonists are Sam Masur, a Korean Jewish kid raised mostly by his Korean grandparents and mostly unwilling to acknowledge his disability, and Sadie Green, an MIT undergrad who takes inspiration, in one of her first games, from her grandmother Freda’s experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust. Like Jordan Mechner, a Jewish kid who spent his time at Yale making a landmark 2D fighting game, Sam and Sadie’s first big hit traffics in Orientalism: “It was 1996,” Zevin’s narrator reminds us, “and the word ‘appropriation’ never occurred to either of them.”
The novel’s a big, overstuffed armchair of plot, characters, invented video games, and precisely chosen symbols, like a long-suffering Donkey Kong arcade cabinet. It’s an unashamedly accessible story that admirably resists the convention of making every single narrative about who ends up sleeping with whom. There’s more than a ladleful of suffering and trauma, plenty of opportunities for a good, cathartic cry, and some of the most insightful writing about video games I’ve ever read. If you’re lucky enough to have a beach vacation ahead of you this winter, this’ll work, but it’d be equally diverting to listen to the audiobook while shoveling snow.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): I could choose to think of 2022 as the year Taylor Swift dropped a sloppily written and artistically regressive garbage heap of an album—which nonetheless broke records on the charts and garnered undue critical praise, and which sent me into a familiar crisis of faith about whether I can continue to maintain my defense of her songwriting prowess. (For a more interesting take on a crisis of faith, check out the one saving grace of Midnights: a song, buried deep in the bonus tracks, with a breathlessly raw reflection on sexual violation, purity culture, and desire.) But my disappointment was assuaged by the fact that, MID-nights aside, this year offered an incredible batch of new music releases.
In compiling a playlist of my favorite music of the year—an annual tradition of mine—I’ve added more than 110 songs, and haven’t been able to resist including whole chunks of the standout albums I’ve had on repeat. This year those have included CAPRIsongs, a buoyant mixtape by British producer and songwriter FKA twigs; Expert in a Dying Field by The Beths and Blue Rev by Alvvays, the two expertly crafted, earworm-heavy girl-fronted-power-pop records that soundtracked my fall; Running with The Hurricane, an pop country album full of soaring melodies from Australian rock band Camp Cope; the beautifully weird and weirdly beautiful God Save the Animals by Alex G, about which I’ve already waxed poetic in this newsletter; RENAISSANCE by Beyoncé, which probably needs no further introduction; and, finally, R&B savant SZA’s triumphant SOS, a 23-song album released after a five-year hiatus that marks not just her return to form as the high priestess of sad self-destructive girls on the dating market, but a mastery of new territory, from early aughts pop punk to full-on rap.
I also enjoyed records this year from Hurray for the Riff Raff, Wilco, The 1975, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Carly Rae Jepsen, Plains, Big Thief, Mitski, Charli XCX, Amanda Shires, Wet Leg, and probably some more I’m forgetting. An embarrassment of riches! You can listen to my playlist here. (It’s not in any particular order; I recommend listening on shuffle.) And yes, at the end of the day I found a few Midnights songs to include, mostly out of respect for the beautiful blend of Swift’s voice with Lana Del Rey’s at 2:57 of “Snow on the Beach,” a song which doesn’t appear to be about anything but sounds pretty nice anyway. What can I say—contemplating so much good music puts me in a spirit of generosity!
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Earlier this week, the excellent literary criticism magazine Bookforum announced that after 28 years of continuous publication, it was closing down. As a longtime reader of the magazine and someone invested in the health of the literary ecosystem, I was devastated by the news. Bookforum has been a stable pillar of American criticism, the venues for which are now vanishingly few and continuing to evaporate—a trend that threatens the stability of a rigorous and accessible public conversation about books. Reflecting on the legacy of the publication, it struck me how it stood as something like a last bastion of a particular view of what book reviews can do. For various reasons relating to different editorial philosophies, many magazines (including Jewish Currents) prefer to publish reviews that advance an argument that exceeds the scope of the text or texts under discussion. But Bookforum was committed to the notion of a review as responsive only to the book in question. While their pieces often did speak to larger concerns, they were not required to; this modesty made possible other kinds of experimentation within the form, while also clearing space for magazines like ours to pursue other, complementary approaches. As the critical ecosystem contracts, the space for a variety of forms of engaging with books shrinks, which attenuates the quality of public intellectual life.
While we mourn the loss and consider what its death at the hands of a massive digital media conglomerate means for the ways such institutions make ends meet (if you value our own critical contributions, please consider subscribing), it’s a good time to revisit some of the wonderful pieces that made Bookforum the shrewd, vibrant, and stylish little magazine it was, from Tobi Haslett’s definitive pan of Thomas Chatterton Williams, to Parul Sehgal’s roving meditation on contemporary books about parenthood, to Jennifer Wilson’s rich dissenting opinion on George Saunders’s study of Russian literature as a guide to the craft of fiction, to Justin Taylor’s ode to the transcendent darkness of Joy Williams. I could go on and on, and look forward to years of new discoveries in the archives of this exemplary publication.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): It’s guaranteed that any Edward Hopper show will be both an artistic and popular success. The current show at the Whitney, Edward Hopper’s New York, on display until March 5th, 2023, is certainly all that. Bringing together paintings, sketches, and commercial work related to New York, the exhibit considers the ways that the city served as a perfect backdrop for what was his major theme: solitude.
We see it in almost every Hopper painting containing human beings. Men and women are alone on trains, in apartments, offices, theaters. But Hopper’s figures are solitary even when they’re with other people: a couple taking their coats off as they take their seats in the painting Two on the Aisle are looking away from each other, as is the couple standing on the stoop of a brownstone in Sunlight on Brownstones. In Chair Car, a beautiful painting of passengers on a railroad car, no one is sitting next to anyone else. No one has a friend or lover; all are strangers to each other. Theater features frequently—either directly, with a lone usher standing in an overhead light, or players taking a bow, or metaphorically: the views through windows, both from the outside in and the inside out, turning life into a minimalist stage work.
One almost has to take it on the painter’s—or the museum’s—word that these are New York paintings. The crowds and human connection that define the city are almost totally absent. Hopper couldn’t paint something like George Wesley Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s, in which the crowd around the boxing ring is almost physically involved in the bout. New York has many things, but the beauty of its natural light is not one of its distinguishing characteristics—and yet, Hopper’s paintings are very much about light. He is a modern heir of the masters of light: Georges de la Tour, Johannes Vermeer, Caravaggio, Vilhelm Hammershøi. If these great painters turned candle light and natural light into characters, the harsh sunlight in Hopper’s paintings of buildings—particularly roofs—turns them into abstract works. But in his most important paintings, light comes from many directions and many sources: table lamps, streetlights, sunlight, neon, moonlight. In some cases, the light even seems to emanate from the figures. themselves.
Hopper, whose style is direct, clear, and easily graspable, is not a modernist. But in his vision of contemporary life as anomic—and in his foregrounding of artificial light to establish planes, to modify or accentuate shapes—he is one of the great painters of modernity. This is a show not to be missed.
Remember that our Winter 2022 issue will be arriving in mailboxes soon! If you enjoy our newsletter and the recommendations you see each week in the Shabbat Reading List, subscribe to receive our work in print—and receive a free tote back as part of our subscription drive! Every subscription dollar we receive goes toward supporting our staff, producing the magazine, and building the Jewish Currents community.
One last thing before you go: We’re excited to promote the 8th Annual Yiddish New York Festival, the nation’s largest festival of Yiddish music, language and culture. December 24–29th, join online or in-person for a terrific array of klezmer concerts, lectures, films, language classes, social justice workshops, singing, klezmer workshops, Yiddish folk dance, cabaret, Yiddish karaoke and more! There are programs for adults, kids, and teenagers. Use Promo Code YNY10 for a 10% discount on full-festival registrations.